Most people don’t believe me when I tell them that my grandparents’ house is one of my favorite get-a-way locales. A short two-hour drive south, their house sits quietly between the tee box on the 4th hole and a picturesque northwest Arkansas mountain overlook. The beds are comfortable. The food is amazing. Eh, I’ll admit the golf is just mediocre but the conversation is always enjoyable. It’s the closest thing I have to my own personal bed and breakfast.
One such conversation over Christmas break has stayed with me for weeks. We were standing at the kitchen bar eating chips and cheese dip, a staple at their house. I seriously eat three pounds of melted processed cheese every weekend we spend there. It really is a problem. Anyway, Granddad was talking, in between chips, about his life. This is common. He’s led a pretty full life and the stories are always engaging. However, his monologue was a little different this time around. He wasn’t discussing things he had done… college football and the air force… but rather, things he didn’t do that he wished he had. His mood was lighthearted, even whimsical, but the bottom line was still there. He was asking aloud, “what if…”
My grandmother finds these kinds of conversations disturbing. She thinks it implies that he wishes he had a different life. That's not it at all. He just laughs it off and can’t believe that she doesn’t think about these things from time to time. But the truth is, she shouldn’t. My grandfather is nearly thirty years her senior and probably has the healthiest, most realistic view on life and death of anyone I know. He’s pretty grounded. Which makes him unusual.
He was in one of his typical reflective moods that evening and was spinning thoughts in his head about what life might have been like… if only… What if he had not transferred from OU to NSU after his sophomore year? What if he would have gone to seminary instead of dental school, as he considered in the spring of 1947? What if they had retired in Colorado instead of Arkansas? These are harmless questions to him. He’s not tortured by regret. He claims to have none. Rather, as he put it, in his mid-80’s, he just has more life to look back on than forward to.
Give him some credit. Even in my late-20’s I realize that there are plenty of those moments to look back on and wonder “what if.” Keep in mind, the key part of this is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to change the outcome. In fact, in my short life there isn’t much, if anything, that I’d go back and change. But my short life has also taught me that most people, if given the chance, would still want to go back to specific times and places and roll the dice differently just for the “H-E-double hockey sticks” of it.
That’s probably why movies about time travel are so appealing to us. I mean really, what would you do if you had a car that could send you back to the 9th grade? I like to think that we’d all stand up for ourselves/kiss the girl/study more or less or whatever. I have this reoccurring dream that I am in 12th grade again and this time, decide not to go out for the football team. I have no idea what it means but I dream this scenario probably once a month. I know, I know... I’m a really sick individual. But I guess my dream forces me to ask what I would do if I could do it differently.
People often quote that all to familiar Robert Frost poem when they feel that they have made the right decision at a particular fork in the road. “I took the one less traveled by” they proudly state, “and that has made all the difference.” But if you ask me, taking the more difficult, less traveled by road is not the point of the poem. This is where the true paradox of the whole “going back” thing really makes sense to me. The point is that we are all travelers, standing periodically at forks, who desperately want to walk down BOTH paths. We want the impossible, not to do it differently, but to do it multiple ways. Notice the plural. Our biggest regret in life might actually be that we only get to walk down one path, one time.
Maybe that’s disappointing to some. After all, as we found out, there’s not even a sideways life in the final season of LOST. But really, it should just up the stakes and cause us to really think about those steps to the right or left we do take. The choices we make, places we move, people we write off and bridges we burn are important because they are the only ones we get. Pick the smooth path or the unfamiliar road but pick it well. And perhaps, when you stand at the end of your road and reflect, as my grandfather did that December evening, you’ll be able to be content with your journey.
But even the most content man I know still asks “what if…”
Maybe we can too.